Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saturday Feb 27

As we learn of more snow on the east coast in the U.S. and of Hawaii’s potential tsunami, we’re faced with…warm, then cold, then warm. Go figure?

It’s been a good, speedy week, enjoying my writing work, Ava’s proud to be counting to 100 and her reading is progressing beautifully. Claire’s getting ready for a concert and had fun w/ her friend Lily, who is a regular at our house of late.

I did get all systems in place for a spin class on Thursday, only to have my phone ring as I was walking up the steps of the place. The owner was on the other end to say they’d had a break-in over night so no spin.

BUMMER. I very rarely do the indoor cycling here as the studio w/ a good deal, decent occasional class time and my schedule are a bit of a challenge to match up.
Anyway, in lieu of sweating, my friend Beth and I had coffee. Can never complain about that.

Break-ins do seem a regularity here. I keep expecting to walk in one day and either find a hooligan in my house or find a mess left by one. Let’s hope for neither.

As my Bronte class nears an end we did have a lively discussion Wednesday, regarding the most unlively of Bronte books we’re read so far – Agnes Grey. Go Agnes.

After her I read The Shack. Thought-provoking but not the greatest writing, I would venture to say. Have since moved onto Blood Red Snow White. Russian fairytale of sorts. TBD on the book review per moi.

Friday I re-entered the world of art. I’d taken a bit of a hiatus since our Italy trip, wherein we saw so much Renaissance art I was a bit done in.

This time I joined the St. Johns Woods Women’s group for a 2-hour “walk” of the National Gallery, which features mostly western European art from the 1200’s up to 1900. Fabulous place that goes on forever, so you really have to focus your time/energy to avoid art overload.

Our guide was fabulous; she pulled us to various pieces throughout the timeframe represented, focusing on a few in-depth. Great tour; I’d like to follow her around the gallery regularly.

From there I zipped off to join friends at Le Boudin Blanc, a fabulous, bustling little French restaurant in Mayfair. Amazing food. AMAZING. One of the best meals I’ve had here since arrival. And great company, too.

Joe and I ended the day with dinner at a Thai restaurant up the road from us. Cheap and cheerful, it was tasty. Service sucked and the food took forever to reach our table. I think a small family runs the place, which, typically, is larger than it appears from outside. You enter a small storefront expecting to find 6 tables and the place goes on forever.

So this place that goes on forever had two waitresses and it looked like the dad was cooking and handling checks.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t phase us but we’d purchased tickets to an 8:40 film across the street. So when food, which had been ordered at 7:15, eventually showed up at 8:35 we did consult the clock.

Though I must say I wasn’t too worked up; the first movie I went to here didn’t start until half hour of previews, ads, warnings about pirating and cell phones had taken place.

The restaurant’s ambience cracked me up, too – space heaters here and there. While appreciated by the chill-baine affected types like me, they do have an impact on ambience…

And since yesterday started off smelling like spring but crashed and burned by the time we scooted off to ballet, bring on the space heater!

The bean curd and aurbergine chili-spiced Thai dish delivered a nice dose of warm spice. After throwing some cash at the cook/cashier we flew across the street for our 8:40 movie; at this point it was 9.

Never mind that. Candy/popcorn ensued. So at 9:05 we walked in…and ads were still in full force.

Eventually Invictus started. Good film, about 20 minutes too long. Or is it that my butt isn’t used to sitting still for more than an hour? That’s what happens when you don’t work in corporate America for 8 years. Your tush gets out of sitting practice.
About the film. Morgan Freeman: great. Matt Damon: not the right fit. Don’t you need to be bigger and have a broken nose or shattered cheekbone and a consistent accent to be captain of South Africa’s rugby team?

Today found me running around Regent’s Park with Debra, listening to the zoo animals squawk for breakfast. Somehow our 8:30 a.m. run got edged up to 7:30. Pretty soon Saturday will feel like every other morning of the week.

Except that breakfast at our house is good on Saturdays (M-F it’s oatmeal, toast or cheerios with bacon, which is really ham masquerading as such here in the UK). This morning: pancakes. Oh and of course Sunday is spoilage day -- chocolate brioches.

Continuing on with the food story, tonight was a lamb chop/potato meal. Sadly, in the land of lamb, I could only find New Zealand product at the grocery store. Since I had my head wrapped around lamb chops and Marks & Spencer only had the NZ version, I went for that. Paired w/ red wine from same country, it worked.

Politically, clearly, NZ has something going right w/ lamb exportation… Don’t worry, the US manages to get items like Kraft mac n cheese slipped in. Plenty of Americans living here are happy to pay the $5 extortion fee for the 50 cent product.

In other news, we’re off to Cinderella on Ice tomorrow. Claire’s skeptical, Ava’s excited and I can’t wait – it will be at Royal Albert Hall, which is spectacular and the acoustics are beyond amazing. So even if the show stinks, whatever sound is produced will be out of this world.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Winter Again

Ok, after being teased with lovely warmth over the weekend (so much so that Ava and I scooted to the park for a short outing after dumping our luggage at home Sunday) we’re back to sleety cold.

Yesterday it rained/snowed/sleeted all day…I believe today is more of same. Cold looks more glamorous on TV at the Olympics, I've decided.

Yesterday’s reigning achievements: getting everyone back to school on time and Claire landing a dance class she really enjoyed. Mondays will find her donning a leotard for ballet and a little jazz/tap.

And more achievements: scotchies and good beef.

Remember the former: rice krispy treats only better? Cheap and cheerful too – PB, corn syrup, sugar, rice krispies. Here I top them w/ 70 percent dark chocolate so they’re truly out of this world. At least in my estimation.

Pair that with Chinese beef stir fry (well ok, the two don’t pair but who cares) and you can envision the meal at our house last night.

I scoured Waitrose for a decent piece of beef, which I vaguely remember having some time ago. Not necessarily from the grocery store here, though.

BUT I was determined yesterday to fulfill my desire for really good beef so after much perusal I found organic sirloin on sale…and you know what? It was delicious and tender and the dish a cinch. Just marinate the beef, cut up in chunks, in oyster sauce (a few tablespoons).

Saute an onion and two red peppers (or whatever color you have on hand) with some garlic in a little oil in your wok for a few minutes. Add beef, sauté some more. Throw in rice noodles, a little soy sauce and a little more oyster sauce. Meal ready. And yes, kids did eat the meat and noodles.

Today: a foray back into the turf world for me…more writing projects have re-surfaced of late, no complaints except why aren’t there more minutes in a day? No doubt all of us could use some.

I’ll leave you with this final note: confusion. Friday the owner of our humble abode here called prior to flying to the US, declaring he’s firing the handyman who’s been instrumental to us having doors that work, removing curtains so I can wash them (call me anal but who wants someone else’s filth hanging on your windows…), putting on kids’ head boards, etc.

Then today I get a call from supposedly fired handyman saying he’s coming to fix the rain-damaged walls next week, and when can he do it?

No, I did not get into “gee I thought you’d been fired;” I’ll stay out of that mess.

TBD: Alan or no Alan next week?!? Cross fingers he shows -- I have shelves that need to be mounted!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Moonfleet Manor!

So off we headed to Waterloo Station on Friday morning – en route to Weymouth in Dorset, the southwest coast (English Channel). (You’ll see plenty of Weymouth in a couple of years as it will host the Olympic 2010 sailing events.) The area is agrarian and tourism-driven, we were told, with the population swelling to extremes in the summer months.

After a relaxing 2 ¾ hour train ride we pulled in and cabbed it down windy streets and roads, past lovely brick buildings and patches of green mingled with coastal scenes. Our hotel was down an even narrower country lane, right on the sea. En route we passed some farms, many horse riders and plenty of horses and ponies milling about in verdant green fields (I continue to be amazed at how much green is in England).

A traditional English building, the lovely stately inn had a big foyer with a dozen pair of wellies off left for guest use. A dog was hanging about near reception – we later learned he’s the Moonfleet Dog, name of Snoopy. He was a big hit with the kids.

After ditching our luggage we passed through 3 lounges with plenty of comfy sofas, chairs, card tables and coffee tables loaded with magazines and newspapers, fireplaces…and wound our way to the restaurant. It was bright and cheery, with big windows featuring great views of the sea and countryside.

Our lunch was sandwiches, eggs, pizza – all good – then we headed off to a large indoor play area where Claire and Ava made use of the trampoline and other toys.

Eventually we checked into our room, then headed to the pool. After plenty of splashing/being splashed, I stopped into the sauna to warm up and dry off, then back to Huntington and Harlyn (love how they name rooms in these character-filled inns).
Great fun to see how these places are decorated – lots of old photos, china, bear skins and the like mounted on the walls.

After collapsing for a bit we headed down to the lounge to await our dinner call. The process here is to have a drink, place the food order and wait to be invited to sup. No complaints – nice fireplace to cozy to up and plenty of headlines to glance over.

Our food was good – Joe’s sweet potato soup was superb – my crabcake and pork belly were fine. But my trio of chocolate was superb!!! Particularly the chocolate soufflé.

Saturday dawned gorgeous – blue sky and sunny. Both Joe and I took walks. The countryside screams James Herriott – large green patches over gentle hills, farm houses here and there. The dog accompanied me as we trudged along the water and field’s edge. Claire of course loved hearing the dog went along; she’s convinced we’ll have a dog as soon as I am won over with dog love.

Lovely way to start the day – exploring a gorgeous area on a gorgeous morning.
I then enjoyed a cappuccino and the paper while Joe wandered.

Then down to a noisy, cheerful buffet. Many families were at Moonfleet – very popular with the toddler crowd.

The food: typical British breakfast – bacon, sausages (really good ones, I might add), hashbrowns, eggs, roasted tomatoes, baked beans, toast.

From breakfast I headed off to a 10 a.m. massage, which was delightful. My back and neck melted. I loved that half coma state massage delivers me into. Pity the poor souls who don’t like to be touched.

After I grudgingly left the table I found Joe and company ready to go to Monkey World:

Set amongst the woodland of Dorset lays 65 acres of sanctuary for over 230 primates. Monkey World was set up in 1987 by Jim Cronin to provide abused Spanish beach chimps with a permanent, stable home. Today Monkey World works in conjunction with foreign governments from all over the world to stop the illegal smuggling of apes out of Africa and Asia. At the park visitors can see more than 230 primates of 15 different species.

We had a great few hours there – a gorgeous day to wander through the place, which is quite large, with a wide array of indoor/outdoor facilities for primates. Big and small, busy and lazy, climbing and playing, relaxing and people-watching, they were fun to read about and observe. Some have horrid pasts – cigarette burn scars, prior addictions to valium and other drugs, inability to parent because they’d never been nurtured, etc.

Here they seem happy and according to the anecdotes about them, most have learned how to relate to their species again, after having been caged or used by humans in inhumane ways.

The park has playground areas and a nature walk interspersed throughout, so it was particularly fun for the kids. Great climbing facilities!

We eventually grabbed a late lunch of typical fast food stuff, then hit the gift shop and took our cab back to the hotel. Great views of the area on the return drive.

Back at Moonfleet we grabbed suits and hit the pool. Once everyone was pooled out, I showered the kids up, then hit the sauna. LOVE LOVE LOVE saunas.

We had a nice break before dinner, enjoyed drinks by the fire again, and this time dinner was exemplary. I had an amazing goat cheese and beet tart (again, pity the poor souls who don’t like beets) and a lovely mullet fish dish served with chorizo and gnocchi.

Joe had a duck appetizer and lamb dish which he seemed to enjoy, Ava had her pasta and Claire, chicken, mash and beans.

For dessert I had a simply amazing warm gingerbread pudding. Kids had ice cream. We all fell into bed, tired, full and happy.

Sunday -- We woke up to rain but by the time I got moving downstairs for coffee the skies had cleared and a lovely day embarked.

I borrowed a pair of wellies and squished through mud in the pastures around the hotel. Again, great views and good exercise, hefting those mud-caked willies. Joe did some wellie-hiking, too, then we enjoyed another round of really good sausages at breakfast.

Ava and I then hit the creche, where she made a mask, and Joe and Claire put some time in at the big play area for more trampoline and table tennis.

In no time it was check out and off we went to the train station for a relaxing trip home and tomorrow, back to school!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On to Dorset

This mid-term break business has been great fun – nice little stay-cation.

Wednesday, after our infamous swim adventure which for the 3rd day didn’t wipe us all out, we zipped over to Westway Stables for Claire’s Pony Day.

She spent from 10 to 4 grooming and loving on the horses, cleaning water buckets, riding, playing arena games and who knows what else. When Ava and I arrived to retrieve her she was glowing with a big grin on her face as she and her partner scrambled to trade places on their horse for a race.

Every bit of her smelled like horse; I even had to wash her jacket. And she was exhausted; we’d intended to eat at Café Med, a neighborhood favorite, but after she got home all she wanted to do was collapse in her nightie. So we tried a new pizza delivery place instead.

Now we’ve only ordered pizza here a few times, given we like to make it. And the handful of delivery pizzas we’ve had have been like Dominoes at home…

BUT my New Yorker friend Kathy finally landed a pie she could approve of before leaving back to NY, thus handing Papa Del’s info on to me.

I would venture to say Papa will make it into my phone – sans the appetizers though. The wings and corn left something to be desired.

Back to pony day for a minute…God smiled down on Claire and her pony friends as the day was bright and sunny, so they could all enjoy. After Tuesday’s deluge, I didn’t expect the best…

And yesterday was another cold, ornery day, so the bright gem in the middle was much appreciated.

While Claire rode Ava and I met some friends for The Princess and Frog movie (well done, as always, Disney – this time no parent got the axe). And while the title screams girlie, I think boys would like it too.

Yesterday we wrapped up swim, met up w/ friends at Giraffe for a kid-friendly lunch, then went to Hairspray. This was the first long musical Ava’s been to, and she was a great audience member. It’s a fun show, wonderful music, humor and dance. Claire seemed to very much enjoy it, as well.

Their show etiquette, I must say, was much better than the middle schoolers behind us – they had their feet up, sans shoes, on the backs of our seats. GROSS. And in a very elegant theatre, too…

Today we’re off to Dorset – happy weekend!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

2nd Swim Day – No Twitch – and Pancakes!

I’m happy to report that yesterday’s swim was successful, this time no tears at all as Ava likes her teacher and has since declared “I love swimming class!”

From that scramble we were off to Topsy Turvy with friends. Whoa the mid-term break crowd blew us away.

With the line out the door (it didn’t help that the rain set in early in the morning and was still going strong when I went to bed last night), we decided to dig in our heels so the kids could enjoy the chaos.

And frankly, it wasn’t bad once we got in the place. We found a table upstairs, put our 7 chicken fingers orders in (here they call them chicken goujons – it sounds so French and upscale, doesn’t it?) and settled ourselves into the noise.

Several hours later we sought out the kids’ shoes and made our way through the crowd, back into the rain and home again home again.

For dinner: the ever popular BFD!!!

Shroave Tuesday pancakes at our house consisted of:

- 220 g flour
- 1 t BP
- 1 t soda
- ¼ t salt
- 1 T granulated sugar
- 450 ml buttermilk (which I couldn’t find but what tastes better, I think, is sour milk, yogurt or in my case crème fraiche diluted w/ milk)
- 2 eggs
- 2 T melted butter (everything is better w/ butter)
- 100 ml milk
- And blueberries are optional (we opted out here – kids don’t want fruit messing up their pancakes)

Combine the above with pajamas, some winter Olympics, syrup & scrambled eggs with REALLY good cheddar on top. And voila.

Happy Shroave Tuesday!

Now on to Ash Wednesday.

Today’s agenda will no doubt feature more swimming, pony camp for Claire, movie for Ava and me and anybody’s guess on the rest.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Swim day without a twitch

As reluctant as I was to re-embark on swim lessons at Swiss Cottage leisure centre, that’s precisely what we did early this morning. We’d gone through one swim lesson in the fall and it rattled me so much I couldn’t rally the resources to return until now.

Essentially, we’d arrived there after school, rushing all the way to pick up temporary membership cards, get outfitted and fight with swim caps (they look easier than they are under duress in a chaotic, noisy locker room). Then we had to find the right entrance to the pool (which involves meandering through a parking garage entrance, counterintuitive to the entire lay out of the place).

At this point I was already exhausted. Add to that poor Ava sobbing out of apprehension, convinced she’d have a male teacher. For whatever reason this male instructor thing throws her for a loop, though she’s grown to like Mr. Chubbers and Mr. Doyle at Abercorn.

Eventually we made our way to the check-in area in front of the teaching pool, where a mass of adults and children huddled.

We joined the huddle and the kids were eventually assigned to “phase 1” since they were new. I then peeled Ava off me and went behind the big glass window with all other parents banished from the pool side.

From there I attempted to keep track of my two children, whose swim caps blended in with all the other pink and black swim caps.

Thirty short minutes later we all re-amassed to collect our dripping charges, Ava again sobbing (not sure why as her teacher was a woman and the most they did was blow bubbles).

Suffice it to say we were all very grateful to get out of the place, which was noisy chaos as the next group worked their way in.

And I was even more grateful, later in the week, when I received a text saying the pool was broken and lessons were cancelled indefinitely.

What brought us back yesterday morning, you ask? This looming credit that I must use or lose…and the fact that the kids need some exposure to water – beyond shower/bath – regularly.

The idea of doing a week of lessons rather than hiking up to Swiss Cottage immediately after school and rush rush rushing through the hair-raising process every Monday also held some appeal.

So I clenched my teeth yesterday morning and got everything ready early so we set out the door with plenty of time. Ava shed a tear or two on the way but held it together. The lobby of the place was actually (dare I say) quiet. As was the locker room and pool area.

We got dressed in calm, checked in with a lovely woman who assuaged Ava’s fears immediately and I again disappeared behind glass to try to pick out my children among the mass. (Smaller mass this time, but nevertheless a mass similar in height and swim attire.)

This time no bubble blowing – the girls had been placed in classed deemed appropriate to their abilities. Again, the 30 minutes flew (an hour and a half of preparation and de-preparation for 30 minutes in the pool -- how much sense does this really make?!?)

This time Ava was upset upon leaving the pool but only because the swim cap was bothering her forehead. Claire seemed relatively unscathed by the process.

And after a relaxed locker room experience we were home by 10:15! Therein I escaped the first mid-term break lesson without a twitch. We'll see how I do today.

What else, praytell, will our agenda bring today? Shroave Tuesday! (Pancake day here – instead of “Fat Tuesday” we’ll be cleaning out the cupboards and making pancakes in preparation for Lenten fasting.) So it’s BFD (breakfast for dinner) at the Webers tonight!

And sometime between swimming and BFD we'll hit Topsy Turvy for some indoor fun (yesterday's cold and snow flurries are on the agenda for today. Bring on the inside entertainment)!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Paddington and running

Running around here is enlightening, I must say.

Yesterday I took it upon myself to jog in Paddington Rec, a park near us that features trails, track, playground equipment, synthetic turf systems, tennis courts, a café that never seems to be open when I’m there, etc.

Oh and plenty of green space for dogs, Frisbees, the occasional kite, a picnic, Abercorn sports day, the list goes on.

In addition to providing recreational opportunity and some fresh air (not to mention great views – the leaves changing during our gorgeous, long autumn season were particularly amazing at Paddington), it’s a great place to observe people.

Yesterday, as I ran sprints around the track, I lapped four Muslim men out for a jog. Their children – 3 or 4 I think – were ensconced within the track, where there is grass with fence separating track and grassy oval.

The men, dark, swarthy and bearded, chatted as they made their rounds, wearing dark, heavy sweats, hats and sweatshirts. (I think they were more heavily dressed than I was; maybe sweating it off was their intent.)

En route to the track I passed a couple of soccer games in full throttle – mostly Asian men who looked to be in their 20’s.

On the other side of the park the dog walkers meandered, yesterday several middle-aged women with small, jacketed dogs. I’ve seen more clothing on dogs here than anywhere I’ve ever been. These cosseted pooches live a starkly different life than the copious unhomed hounds we observed in India.

The women with said dogs seemed to drift in and out of conversations with other dog walkers so perhaps they regularly run into each other at Paddington.

I get a kick out of a couple of older ladies I’ve often seen during my morning Paddington foray. These two ladies, who look to be upwards of 70, mill about with cigarettes hanging from one corner of a wrinkled lip, waiting for Precious (or whomever) to do his/her business. I don’t believe it occurs to them that what they’re doing flies in the face of recreation at Paddington…

Then there are the personal trainer pairs. Yesterday a male trainer and his female client discussed the benefits of stretching as they eased into a routine involving exercise stations around the park.

And in an old bandstand in another corner of the park, three other Asians held poses (maybe tai chi?).

No one was on the cricket pitch this morning; often it is used by young Indian and Pakistani men early on Saturdays. On the park’s edges, the occasional resounding smack or shout could be heard as pairs of people face off across the court, tennis racket in hand. These folks seem more typically to be British, generally 25-50, I would guess.

And always there are a few lone runners, like myself, making our way around the tennis courts and pitches, up and down hills and around green spaces, some with shorts and tanks no matter what the weather, most with some kind of musical device to see us through. We're a more motley crew -- old, young, skinny, not so skinny. All in our own little world.

Later, Paddington will be busier, noisier. But early Saturday mornings are perfect.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pre and Post Bronte Weekend

Life hasn’t been dull here in Londontown so far in 2010.

School, of course, keeps everyone’s calendar moving, especially w/ coffees. ASL seems to have a coffee venue going at all times.

Last month I popped in for my cups of joe at the 2nd grade meeting. Reading was the hot topic of this one: why kids this age should be reading age-appropriate material rather than the Harry Potters of the world. Word to selves: back off from the over achieving and let the kid get the themes, fluency etc. through books geared for them.
That doesn’t preclude reading Harry Potter w/ child (though around here Harry hasn’t piqued Claire’s interest).

In other news, gone are the dinosaur card catalogues (of course) and on with interactive library space, wherein kids can suggest books to friends, critique books, make book wish lists, etc. All fun and capsizing on the online community/technology this generation embraces. I’m already feeling left behind.

Other coffees:

One about raising girls. Hot topics: perfectionism, eating issues, the “good girl” paralyzed to step out and be herself/excel creatively for fear of misstepping, the “mean” girl myth (usually there isn’t a “mean” girl – there may be an ugly group dynamic or a girl your child views as a threat due to her ability, popularity, etc.). Lots of points to ponder. Including one comment about a 4th grader on a diet… let’s take a step back, people.

I recently also had coffee w/ Abercorn’s class room parents. Nice to catch up w/ a wide array of people – I continue to be amazed/impressed with Abercorn’s international community. Ava’s class has Russia, Japan, China, India, Pakistan, Great Britain, Nigeria, New Zealand, Australia, Cyprus and the U.S. represented.

I did also get to appear in Ava’s class as mystery reader. Some mystery: Miss Waters announced to the whole class the day prior that I would show up to read. Hmm!

And while on the Abercorn topic, I got to escort two students along on the tube/train station field trip last week.

Off we all went, with nearly as many adults as 4 and 5 year olds, to the tube, then to Paddington Station. I’m happy to say we didn’t lose anyone, though one child got her shoe stuck in the escalator at Paddington. She’s fine, shoe didn’t appear to be worse for the wear, either.

Ava and Oduko held hands and ran around the train station in the cold (we had a wicked cold snap last week, naturally on the day we all set off slowly on this trip). I’m not exaggerating when I say half our outing was spent crossing streets, getting everyone re-grouped and counting heads. No wonder home schoolers fly through material. No lining up.

On the agenda for the tube/train station trip: a treasure hunt around Paddington station, wherein kids had to find signs/objects corresponding to their sheets. When they’d checked them off we met at Krispy Crème by Paddington bear for doughnuts. And yes, KK tastes just as good here as at home.

The theatre scene of late took Joe and me to Misanthrope and Oliver.

The former was very well done, very smart, great language but not really my thing. After that and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I’ll stick to the lighter side for a while.

Oliver was more up my alley; I really enjoy the amazing musicals we can take advantage of here. From the costuming to the music, the acting and dancing to singing, it’s all so professionally executed, and with such warm enthusiasm time and again – how do they do it?!? In Oliver the cast includes many young people (Oliver himself, naturally, and numerous orphans/scamps). Their talent is already amazing.

Other bright spots of late:

- A lunch cooking class at Divertimenti, a culinary store in Marylebone. The theme: Middle Eastern (quick and easy). Lamb tagine (fabulous), a wonderful marinated chicken dish, chick pea salad and rose water ice cream. (Pass on the rose water.) Everything else was delicious and the chef leading the class passed on some great tips and tricks. No cleaning of quails, thankfully!

- Book group – we read and discussed An American Wife in January (how much of it is really “centered” on GW and family, one wonders) and Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse by Brigid Keenan. The former was about 150 pages too long, in my mind, but an easy read. The latter wasn’t a great book to discuss but the anecdotes are fun and easy to read; some of the woman’s third world adventures made me laugh out loud.

- Turkish lunch – one of the parents from ASL hosted a big Turkish lunch get together, complete w/ the Turkish ambassador’s wife. We enjoyed wonderful food, can’t begin to tell you the names of dishes but it was all delicious. The best were little tiny meat-stuff dumplings that Turkish women get together and make for special occasions. We even got a demonstration on how to make these delicate, labor-intensive things.

- Topsy Turvy! Claire had a day off recently, so rather than run to a museum and get cultured up a group of us gathered at one of those indoor play places where there are no doubt germs galore. A few hours later, the kids re-surfaced for greasy food, then dove back in, ending the day tired, dirty and happy. We’ll be back there again this week, I suspect.

- Claire’s poetry café. ASL’s 2nd graders presented their poetry works last week, introducing them with video clips. They ended their presentations with animated slides they’d created. Each child’s topic related to a place they enjoyed/had fond memories of (back yard, home country, room, etc.). Claire’s was remembering riding in Kansas City a couple years ago.

- Chinatown! One of the Abercorn moms is half Chinese, so she corralled a group of us to enjoy lunch recently w/ her in Chinatown. It didn’t take much convincing to get me there…so for a few pence (cheapest lunch I’ve had here so far) we all ate tons of Chinese food at the Crispy Duck.

The place is cheap and cheerful, I’d go again in a heartbeat and we rolled out of there stuffed. Afterward we hit the Chinese grocery store across the street with Asian friends Heather and Helen, who regularly shop there. It’s so much fun to peruse all the exotic ingredients (pigs heart, anyone?).

With a recommendation for a “finer dining” Chinese experience, Joe and I made a reservation for Friday evening at Plum Valley, also in Chinatown. We had a fabulous meal there after I hit one of those infamous grocery stores for five spice powder and some other Chinese ingredients (I’m jumping on the Chinese New Year band wagon and making an Asian duck dish later today. That, and chocolate brownies, are on our food agenda -- must celebrate the Chinese holiday and Valentine's!).

Might I add that I was the token white chick in the Chinese grocery store, which was PACKED with Asians as they were preparing for their big holiday.

- On the art end, ASL recently gathered a group to go to a special Indian photography exhibit. All black and whites, the photos – taken by Raghu Rai -- were superb and brilliantly curated at the Aicon Gallery near Piccadilly Circus. Another similar exhibit is opening this month and I’m hoping to go – this one will be larger, featuring works from Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as India.

- Walk in the mud. Last week I set off with 15 other women hikers and our wizened guide, Hugh, to hike 9 miles in Kent. (It sounds exacting, doesn’t it…9 miles. Let me just say the pace was a nice walk.)

This time the weather and ground conditions left much to be desired. Cold and snow flurries (far better than cold and rain or sleet). The ground was muddy, as in that kind that sucks onto the soles of your shoes, making them weigh several pounds. This you could argue merely adds to the exercise quota of said excursion. Or in my case, makes you concerned your shoes are simply going to be sucked off into the abyss of of rural England, and you’ll be forced to trudge back to London in filthy socks. Imagine the looks on the tube as beautifully coiffed business people seek small spaces in which to circumvent your soiled-ness.

Well anyway, suffice it to say I didn’t lose my shoes (they are pretty filthy, though – that would represent a hiking coup I guess; you aren’t really an outdoorsy person if your gear hasn’t fully been inaugurated).

Hours of squishing through mud later we did return to London, having had our fill of fresh air and nature. Our respite: a lovely little pub lunch at mile 5. Oh and a much enjoyed cup of coffee as we waited for our train to take us home.

We were definitely the dirtiest passengers on the return tube trip! Might I also add thank heavens for hot baths.

I’ll await warmer temps for the next sojourn out into the British countryside.

- Belated birthday celebration. Last week we finally pulled Claire’s belated b-day party off at a paint your own pottery place in West Hampstead. She and her 12 friends seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves as they painted pets on plates, then segued into cake and ice cream. Today we’ll shlep up to the place to pick up said plates…the only downer on this expedition is that one plate ended up with a hairline fracture (which apparently is a huge rarity and the entire staff at the place is “devastated”).

Naturally Murphy’s law kicked in and the damaged plate is the birthday girl’s.

We haven’t broken the news to her yet as yesterday she tried out a dance class she was very excited about, only to be disappointed because it is so "not her style."

And yes, she will have the opportunity to re-do her plate, free of charge, etc.

- Burns night. I must say, I’m ignorant of the writings of Robert Burns but apparently he’s Scotland’s most renowned poet. And in 1801, on the fifth anniversary of the death of Robert Burns, nine men who knew him met for dinner in Burns Cottage in Alloway to celebrate his life and works. The meal centered “on a fine fat haggis; with recitation and singing of Burns’s works and a toast (in verse) to the memory of their friend and hero.”

Today Burns night is celebrated every January 25 in various locations throughout the world, and I happily attended my first.

We – an Abercorn parent group – gathered at a local pub to toast Burns – with Haggis and roast beef. (I opted for the latter.)

I don’t know if accompanying each course with whiskey was the traditional Burns celebration, but that’s what our group did. Or I should say I smelled each whiskey, took a tiny sip and passed it down to a big guy a few seats over who drank his, Sarah’s and mine. (I wonder how his January 26 was.)

More on Burns night:

Apparently since the first Burns supper was such a jolly evening, all agreed to meet again the following January for a Birthday Dinner for the bard, little knowing that they had invented a global phenomenon that we know as the BURNS SUPPER – which still broadly follows the Reverend’s original plan.

Burns’s popularity grew rapidly after his untimely death and the idea of meeting annually to share his poems and songs in the bonds of friendship caught the public imagination. Some Ayrshire merchants in Greenock followed with the first Burns Club Supper in January 1802 and the West coast towns with strong links to Rabbie reached out and joined in the new festival: Paisley, Irvine, Kilmarnock and Dumfries.

Typically, a dozen or more men sat down to dine – as often working men as the middle classes – sometimes in a bar Rab had frequented. But the real link was his poetry with its message of love, freedom and the essential value of humanity. Many early suppers were organised by Burns Clubs who exist today, but a big boost in participation came with the big literary Burns Suppers, the original organised by Sir Walter Scott in Edinburgh in 1815 with Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd giving the Immortal Memory.

So now I need to seek out Burns’ works and get up to speed for next year’s Burns event.

On that note, I will leave you (but not before I tack on a recipe I very much enjoyed making and eating recently – simple, fun and quick to the table for a weeknight!).

Lamb Meatballs

1 lb ground lamb
½ c. fresh parsley
2 T onion (chopped)
½ c. feta cheese, crumbled
½ cup kalamata olives, chopped
2 eggs
1 t. Italian seasoning

Mix all, make into 16 meatballs, broil 3 minutes on each side. I served this w/ cous cous. And yes, the kids did eat the meatballs. (Fun food!)

Have a great week, all. It’s mid term break here, with both kids off, so we’ll be hitting the theatre, stables, movies and topsy turvy. And ending things with a brief sojourn to Dorset. May the weather improve rapidly!!!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bronte Country!

When did February happen?

Oh well, can’t complain – we had a busy, interesting, chilly January and today is gray but rather warm…teasing us with spring, no doubt. I do believe the weather plans to dip again on Monday but until then I will enjoy wearing one layer less!

To wrap up Bologna – we left January 2, having thoroughly enjoyed wonderful sites, food, wine, art and churches. (Did I mention plenty of art and churches…)

On our way out we stopped at a GIANT flea market near our hotel – same trinkets and trash as every market – and were off to the airport to journey home.

Upon return it was a Santa fest, given the jolly fellow came while we were traveling. I think everyone was happy with their stash.

On January 4 Joe and Claire returned to routine, Ava and I welcomed our new fridge (which I’m happy to say has now been quietly cooling our food for a month). May it continue in this vein until we bug out!

I resumed jogging w/ my running partner a few days a week – something we began in December. (I’d resorted to running when it got cold to stay warm. Some days I even run to pick up Claire – while dressed in slacks and dress shoes -- from school while Ava scoots. No doubt I get plenty of strange looks.)

So the running: good. Chill banes (sp?): not so good. I managed to develop sores on my fingers and swelling, apparently due to the cold. (Clearly I’m harkening back to the Charles Dickens era.)

Assuming I had some kind of infection, I did have my digits checked out by my doctor, who after trying to treat said infection, rushed me to a supposed renowned rheumatologist.

I’m relieved to report it’s nothing serious and eventually this swelling and soreness will diminish on its own. Clearly I belong in a Mediterranean climate. (Love London, but could we transplant it to Greece?)

I have also since been tested for Raynaud’s Phenomenon which is:


The testing for Raynaud’s involved me going into a rather dreary, old room without windows at the Royal Free Hospital, where a very chatty scientist examined the blood vessels in my fingers, then immersed my hands in cold water for a minute and tested how long it took them to warm up. (Frankly they didn’t warm up until I’d been on the bus for a good while, fingers ensconced in mitts.)

Exciting times, right?

In other news, early last month, after Ava returned to school (she was off until Jan 7), I joined a group of ladies for a presentation and tour of “Turner and the Masters,” an exhibit at the Tate Britain. Great talk by one of the museum curators, and a wonderful presentation of works alongside Turners’. (Among the artists featured in the exhibit: Canaletto, Rubens, Rembrandt and Titian.)

We also got more snow in early January, which shut down airports and public transport (though both kids’ schools remained open). Somewhere in there Ava got invited to a birthday party at one of those indoor pay and play spots – perfect for the weather and she seemed to thoroughly enjoy it.

My Bronte class kicked into gear mid-month, starting w/ discussions of Jane Eyre, then Wuthering Heights. Next we’ll read Agnes Gray. Jane I loved re-reading, Wuthering Heights I mourned when I finished it and Agnes I’m not too excited to pick up given several people have told me it’s dull. (Ringing endorsement…)

As part of class we headed off to Bronte country last weekend, a lovely group of mostly women (as the class is all women). One husband and one boyfriend braved the excursion.

It was fabulous; we left London last Thursday and headed up to Haworth, home of the Bronte family, via train. After a few hours’ journey we were whisked to our bed and breakfasts by coach – I stayed in the Memories Room at the Old Registry, a quaint old B&B on Haworth’s old cobble-stone main street.

A delightful place with lots of character, my room was decorated in gold and black, with a curtained, high four poster bed and very snuggly comforter. The bathroom was immense and right up my alley: complete w/ a lovely Jacuzzi jet tub.

For dinner we wandered up the very steep cobble-stone hill to a little pub, wherein we were entertained by the museum director dressed as Branwell Bronte, brother to Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

In character and with great humor, he presented a lengthy poem that gave us the family history of the Brontes. Branwell, too, had tried his hand at writing, though not attaining the accomplishments of his sisters. He also worked as an artist and as a bookkeeper and tutor (he was fired from the teaching position because he’s said to have had an affair with the mom. How’s that for going the extra mile...).

Struggles with alcohol and opium addiction led to his demise. FYI we saw the apothecary where he attained his opium – it’s still an apothecary, no doubt limited in its opium dealings today.

Dinner was great – we enjoyed plenty of wine, an incredible caramelized onion tart and sea bass for me. These pubs seem to do wonderful things w/ caramelized onions and cheese.

Friday found us heading down to our quaint little dining area for a warm country breakfast – I had sausage, hash browns, toast and beans. (Beans for b’fast seems to be an English thing.) We then met our guide for a walk on the moors. It was bitterly cold. BITTERLY. But we braved it, hiking past the churchyard and through a lovely lane lined by gorgeous trees.

Out into the brushy, wild moors we soon found ourselves. The wind was piercing, temperatures brisk as we slogged along. (I’ve never been with a group of 20 that moved fast – now why is that?)

Periodically our guide, a library educator and wealth of information about the Brontes, stopped to share anecdotes about the Bronte family and their excursions into the moors, homes and farms featured in the books, geographical differences since the 1800’s, etc.

The area, rugged in appearance and climate, is beautiful – hilly and green, with rock fences zigzagging here and there. Apparently in early autumn it’s at its best, with lavender flowers blossoming on the brush across each and every hill.

After our very brisk outing we hopped aboard our coach to peruse the countryside, stopping and getting out of the bus to see firsthand homes and farms featured in the books. It was a lovely drive, windy roads, stone homes, rivers and creeks meandering through the hills.

Eventually our meanderings led us to lunch at what is supposed to be England’s best Indian restaurant. It certainly is large and serves immense portions – we left with huge doggy bags, which we passed on to our bus driver (despite the fact that he told us he didn’t particularly care for the restaurant…Alice was determined not to let the food go to waste!).

Stuffed, we returned to our hotels for down time, wherein I got a great massage. Felt so good after being outside fighting the cold earlier in the day.

Then it was off to the bus again for pick up of two late arrivals and dinner in another locale – this time a lovely pub where we ate in the cellar. We were told by the kitchen staff that the building was originally a dungeon, part of the local castle.

With arched brick ceilings, it was a warm, festive environment – no doubt an improvement on its former uses.

I couldn’t do justice to my “locally grown” pheasant (makes it sound like they have a cage of pheasants out back – which could be the case, I guess) given we’d had so much Indian food a few hours prior to this food event. That seemed the general consensus around the table – the vegetables were popular, if nothing else.

Saturday in Bronte country:

This morning we were out and about early again, porridge being most popular after the food orgy of the prior day. I opted for a cheese/tomato toasty – yum!

Our first order of business for the Bronte day: a talk by our guide of yesterday in the basement of the parsonage. She was very insightful, led us through the Bronte timeline with a preview of the house, slides of photos of the family, information about how the Brontes as children lived and wrote, etc.

We then broke into two groups, with mine starting in the house for a tour. The Brontes lived in the parsonage from 1820 to 1861 as their father was the parson – lovely home with gorgeous windows, set on a hill very near the town centre and moors, with graveyard adjacent.

Though added onto later by a subsequent parson, the rooms the Brontes inhabited remain true to how they lived, with some personal effects on exhibit, their furniture, etc. Of note was how small Charlotte was – 4’10”, I think, and her dress and shoes on exhibit illustrate just what a tiny person she was.

A special exhibit featuring tiny books the authors had written as children is housed in the “newer” part of the house, along with letters and other Bronte items of interest.

From the house our group trooped off for a walk around town, from the cemetery to the hill where Bramwell’s favorite pub, the infamous apothecary and other businesses were (and are still functioning today).

A lovely, albeit chilly day, it was a great morning of insight and I think we all felt like we had a good grasp of the family history and influences of lifestyle, time and place that affected the authors.

Lunch was at one of the bed and breakfasts – the Ashmount. A very elegant property with lovely views over the Haworth community, its rooms were warm and light-filled. We had lasagna and vegetable chili, which warmed us up nicely.

Then we separated, some people to the coach for shopping at a local market and for antique-hunting. The other hearty folk (how I include myself, frozen fingers and all, in this group, is beyond me) added some layers and slipped on hiking shoes for another walk around the moors. This time we made a pact to move fast so as not to freeze!

And with fewer than 10 in-shape sisters, we did indeed have an invigorating, beautiful hike through the moors on a crisp, sunny, blue sky day. Over the brushy hills, down to the Bronte falls (where icicles hung off the banks), around the vibrant blue reservoir, up a steep hill where short, fluffy sheep with dainty hooves grazed and back around through town we walked. Two hours later we stopped for a drink at The Black Bull, where Bramwell apparently imbibed more than a few.
We’d been told it was a seedy place and maybe it was, but our time there was enjoyable, exchanging laughs around a nice big table with good beer.

For dinner we ate late, trudging back up the hill a final time for a wonderful meal at a very trendy pub – it screamed Haworth from outside, very modern inside. I had a lovely pear/goat cheese salad and shrimp/scallop main dish.

Great, memorable day in Haworth!

On Sunday some of our group trooped back out to the moors for a morning photo and last look over the hills. Most of my hotel compatriots, myself included, opted to relax over breakfast. One more cheese/tomato toasty…

And we began our journey back to London – bus to train, train to train, train to cab and home again!

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India